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Helping Your Teenager Overcome Addiction

Helping Your Teenager Overcome Addiction
By: Branden Henry

If you’re anything like me, guiding your teenager through life is increasingly overwhelming. Many parents come into my office feeling frustrated or hopeless when they find out their teen has started using drugs or alcohol. Twenty years ago, marijuana, nicotine and alcohol were the biggest culprits of adolescent substance abuse. Back then it was hard to sneak past parents if your clothes reeked of smoke or your eyes were bloodshot and dilated. Today, with the refinement, accessibility and low cost of drugs, teens are able to use more and heavier with less obvious signs of use.

According to a 2011 study by the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia, 75% of high school students have used addictive substances, including cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana or cocaine; 90% of Americans with an addiction started smoking, drinking or using other drugs before age 18; one in four Americans who began using any addictive substance before age 18 are addicted, compared to one in 25 who started using at age 21 or older.

One reason why teens are so prone to getting caught up in risky behaviors is that their pre-frontal cortex (the future-oriented, decision-making part of the brain) is not yet fully developed. Being a teenager is like driving a sports car that can go from zero to 60 in three seconds, but with brakes that are faulty and slow to respond. Their brains are primed to seek out rewarding experiences, but are limited in their ability to think through future-oriented consequences.

Taking risks during adolescence is normal, and even helpful to growth and development. In my counseling practice, parents often ask where exactly the line is between taking risks and the point where taking those risks is starting to become harmful. If you’ve noticed a marked change in your child’s personality, grades or relationships, and suspect your teenager of using drugs or alcohol, start moving towards professional help. Treating adolescent substance abuse requires a different approach than the treatment of an adult with the same issues. Look for someone who has experience working with teens and has a reputation for working with the whole family.

It’s essential that the therapy focuses on more than just the problem-causing behavior itself. Often, if a teen has moved beyond experimentation and into compulsive use, there is an underlying history of trauma and unhealthy relationships. In this case the counseling needs to focus not only on stopping the use of substances, but also on healing trauma and moving towards healthy relationships, with family and friends working towards the same goal. Additionally, as the teenager puts down the chemicals or behavior that have kept him numb, he will need someone to help develop skills for dealing with big emotions. If the young person has experienced devastating loss, a distant or chaotic home life, traumatic events in life or had guardians who were active addicts, he is susceptible to have current compulsive abuse of drugs morph into an addiction as an adult.

If you find yourself in this situation, which feels like a nightmare for most families, there is hope. Know that you are not alone, nor is your situation hopeless. Although it may seem frustrating that our teenagers’ brains are not yet fully developed, it is also a blessing. When a teen who actively abuses drugs stops using, and moves into a healthy sober lifestyle, his brain can actually heal itself. This process of healing takes years, but with the right guidance and help it is very well possible. Moving from the destruction of substance abuse into a sober and healthy lifestyle will require time, building healthy relationships, learning the skills of emotional regulation, moving into a positive lifestyle (exercise, healthy eating, good sleep hygiene) and whole family care and counseling.

For those of you who feel that you are at the crossroads with your teen, I encourage you to look at the warning signs checklist at, and then reach out for help.

Branden Henry is gratefully married with four kids. He is a licensed professional counselor and marriage and family therapist, and has specialized training in treating trauma and sexual addiction.

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